Outriders by Jay Posey and Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. Book review
As a genre, military science fiction holds many pitfalls for the unwary. Clichés of tough ‘give-no-quarter’, grizzled veterans abound and the narrative is nothing more than violent episodes of incoherent action sequences strung together by a wafer thin plot. But there are some really great military science fiction books out there and Outriders, published by Angry Robot, and Ninefox Gambit, published by Solaris, are two examples of how to write excellent novels in this genre. For both, the action sequences not only flow but also form an integral part of the whole story, which is more than the sum of its parts. Woman play key roles in the action of the books, but their presence is far from token, nor does it feel forced, and the balance that is achieved makes the concept of genders irrelevant. Although they are effectively in the same genre, both books are very different and require very different reading approaches, but are excellent and not to be missed.
Outriders by Jay Posey
‘Captain Lincoln Suh died on a Wednesday. And things only got harder from there.’ says the first part of the blurb for Outriders. If that doesn’t get your attention then nothing will. It also means I do not need to give my usual introduction to what the book is about, because it effectively describes the world Lincoln (or ‘Link’ as he will become known by his close-knit team) is about to enter, as well as the nature of the very special organisation, the Outriders, he will be working for.
This is an easy book to get into and a pleasure to read, because you quickly forget about the potential strangeness of the science fiction environment. Posey’s characters may be soldiers, but they are also thinkers and as much tacticians and humanitarians as specimens of physical athleticism.
The way the initial pre-mission analysis is conducted is excellent and very engaging, but there is also plenty of banter to develop the relationships between the different members of the team. When the clichés do appear (like the grizzled commander of the Outriders) they are enjoyable and the book wouldn’t feel right without them, because they are part of what makes the sense of camaraderie work so well. The character development is done largely through verbal exchanges and the character’s behaviour, because too much backstory would get in the way of action and plot.
But there is also a parallel story woven into the narrative, which might have been a distraction, but works really well and becomes very important. It involves Piper, who was one of the personal of a space station and is the antithesis of the women in the Outriders ‘Band of Brothers’. She has not been trained to fight but her resourcefulness, bravery and determination adds another dimension to an already packed story.
At the heart of Outriders is a thriller with bursts of action and a book you begin to read and realise you’ve become so engrossed in that a whole day has passed by without you noticing.
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Captain Cheris, a Kel soldier, is in disgrace for her unconventional approach on the battlefield. As a result of her behaviour she is given the seemingly impossible task of retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has been recently taken over by heretics who do not follow the edicts of the hexarchate, a group of six factions, each with a different speciality.
In a move typical of her ability to think ‘outside the box’ Cheris joins forces with General Jedao, a tactician who is capable of retaking the fortress. But this is a far from straight forward enterprise, because Jedao was executed after becoming insane and massacring not only the enemy, but also his own soldiers and command. However, Jedao was considered too valuable an asset to completely destroy, so his mind has been preserved in a secure facility. In order to work with Jedao, Cheris must psychically join with him and as a result might be his next victim or become as insane as the general.
This is a very interesting set up. Cheris is a highly competent Kel, a member of a soldier caste. Her mathematical abilities are so sophisticated she should have joined the Nirai caste whose speciality is mathematics. Jedao was originally a Shuos, or assassin, who became a Kel.
The hexarchate also consists of the Andans, who control high culture, the Rahal who oversee the functioning of the calendar (which acts not only as a timekeeping mechanism, but a way of remembering all kinds of events) and the Vidona, who ensure compliance within the population. It is a harsh society and all these factions jostling for precedence makes for the cooperation between of them constantly run the risk of teetering on the brink of collapse. It is why the hexarchate was once a heptarchate, with the Liozh, a caste of philosophers supposedly exterminated.
The complexity of the society in Ninefox Gambit is apparent from the start, but unravelling it to understand the different groups described above does take some time, because much of the world building is done on the fly and concepts come thick and fast. This is for a good reason. If Yoon Ha Lee had taken the time to methodically work through all the details of the Ninefox world, the story would slow to a snail’s pace. But persevere and you will be rewarded with something quite remarkable.
To go back to the two main characters Cheris and Jedao. Their combined capabilities make them a formidable force because you effectively have teamwork from two minds capable of being Kel, Shuos and Nirai; a soldier, assassin and mathematician rolled into one. It is a combination not afraid to make unconventional decisions and also makes it possible to explore the constant shift of tensions between the castes on an intimate scale, as Cheris and Jedao’s story weaves its way through this intricately plotted and conceived book.
The book approaches the operation against the fortress on both the large political and military scale, the close up from the perspective of the troops on the ground and the minutiae of interactions and between Cheris and Jedao (who are allies, but also potentially deadly enemies), which is mesmerizing and unbelievably intense as they mentally wrestle with one another.
The result is a military science fiction novel, that offers so many layers it will only improve with the inevitable desire to read it all over again.
Outriders courtesy of Angry Robot, Ninefox Gambit courtesy of Solaris via NetGalley